Geontologies of the Otherwise

From the Series: The Politics of Ontology

Photo by Ian Lindsay.

Words are dear here where we are charged with commenting on the potential of the concept of ontology for contemporary anthropology—thus the condensed and clipped nature of my writing. In what follows, I begin by stating some of my major disagreements with the programmatic statement organizing our discussion and then outline what I believe are the three nested conditions to any productive conversation about an ontologically-informed anthropology of the otherwise.

The Major Disagreements

First, I do not agree that ontology necessarily evokes essence. Numerous philosophies would demonstrate otherwise. We need only say “Martin Heidegger” to remember one major philosophical treatise that did not (existence, remember, precedes essence). Second, I do not agree that the opposite of ontological essence is multicultural social constructionism. One would have to understand the complex thinking of Spinoza, Peirce, Deleuze, et cetera, as “multiculturalism,” something that seems awkward to me. Finally, engaging the literatures on ontology does not necessitate engaging in a translation exercise. One could, for instance, be engaged in a transfiguration exercise (Gaonkar and Povinelli 2003; Povinelli 2011).

The Preconditions

First is a position on the sources of the otherwise. Before I can assess what an ontology of the otherwise can do for anthropology, I need to know whether “ontology” is situated in an immanent, transcendental, or trans-immanent framework. Of course, significant philosophical debates rage within each of these grossly-characterized positions about who is an example of which and what will be meant by any of them. But some basic groundwork needs to be laid so that we know whether we believe that we are dealing with essences or existents, first and fundamentally. Thus, for the record, if ontology concerns me, it concerns me as an arrangement of existents at/on/in the plane of existence. We are, in other words, grappling with a meta-existence–existence dynamic. Entities and their arrangements are immanent to the plane of existence. But the plane of existence is also immanent in relation to itself and the entities it produces. In other words, the plane of existence is not one plane of existence. It is always more than one, even as it is becoming hegemonic or maintaining its hegemony. Why? The plane of existence is the given order of existents-as-arrangement. But every arrangement installs its own possible derangements and rearrangements. The otherwise is these immanent derangements and rearrangements. Michel Serres (1987) explored a compatible understanding of how the otherwise is built into every arrangement of existence—to build is to build the building and its noise. To raise a glass is to build into existence the possibility it will fall—or float—when let go.

Second are the definitions of power, politics, and ethics that arise from this approach to the ontology of the otherwise. If any arrangement of existents/existence builds its own otherwise, then ontology presupposes a study of power, politics, and ethics as analytically separate problematics. Power is understood as that which enables arrangements to maintain their apparent unity and reproduce this apparent unity over time, no matter that these arrangements are continually creating their own otherwises. Politics is the adventure of the otherwise as it becomes (or does not) a self-referential, extended, and dominant entity-arrangement. This process can be summarized: What is initially dispersed noise comes to enclose itself through self-reference (and thus an initial this-that differentiation), creating its differential qualities and skin, and, in the process, pulling in and altering that which surrounds it. The analytic study of power and politics asks why, given that the otherwise is everywhere, some existents-existences stay in place? Ethics is a practice of effort oriented to the formation of new existents and new planes of existence. This ethics does not have an external—transcendent/transcendental point of view to/about any given plane of existence. It cannot, given that an immanent ontology does not allow for adjudication external to the plane of existence. How and why, therefore, the ethical subject puts effort here or there, on this or that, now or then, must be understood outside the comfort of normative adjudication. Even the Habermasian notion of a regulatory ideal (Habermas 1984) is merely a practice of ethics raised to the level of a politics of existence.

Third, we must double back onto ontological from the perspective of the entities it builds into dominant fields of knowledge production (ontic possibilities, savoir), including anthropology. These entities, I would suggest, are built on a foundational division within ontology as savoir. Since its inauguration as a field of philosophical reflection, ontology has been defined through the problems of being and nonbeing, finitude and infinitude, the zero and the (multiple) one, most of which create and presuppose a specific kind of entity-state, namely life. In the natural, social, and philosophical sciences, “life” acts as a foundational division between entities that have the capacity to be born, grow, reproduce, and die and those that do not: biology and geology, biochemistry and geochemistry, life and nonlife. Ontology is, thus, strictly speaking a “biontology.” Its power is its ability to transform a regional plane of existence—loosely speaking, Western understandings of those entities that have these capacities—into a global arrangement. Ethics is the practice of effort that opens the conditions and cares for the entities that are this division’s otherwise. And politics is, first, the struggle to demonstrate that this is simply one arrangement of many possible arrangements between biontology and geontology; and, second, the struggle to foster and extend the many names of the otherwise to this ontological division (climate change, anthropocene, Indigenous cosmologies, animism, vitalism, geontology) such that they are given life.


Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar, and Elizabeth A. Povinelli. 2003. “Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transfiguration, Recognition.” Public Culture 15, no. 3: 385–97.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2011. “Routes/Worlds.” e-flux, no. 27.

Serres, Michel. 2007. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press